We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Social acceptance (In Research) and the inequality

How easy it is for a new comer to be a part of an already established social group or hierarchy? The social group / hierarchy could be in the form of groups in academia, industry, cultures, etc.

Some time back I watched a documentary "The lion Ranger - Attack of the teens"

The main narrator in the documentary is an owner of a wild animal shelter park in Africa. He explains with examples how when a new animal (Lion) is brought to the park, the already established groups of existing animals treat him. The different methods he uses to make the new member get used to the new life, and the new park mates. To explain in a single sentence, "Its complex and unpredictable".

How does it apply in humans? I try to think from the perspective of academic groups and provide my perspective.

Often during research conference visits I find a common scenario. People tend to do things in groups. Students from established research groups attend conferences and tend to stick together instead of mixing with others. Be at the talks, at the lunch tables, dinners, there is a strong affiliation of staying together. Those who know each other well, keep on talking with each other rather than mixing with those unknown faces, who are trying to learn new things. Getting into such groups is tricky, because unless you have proven your mettle, nobody is interested in talking with you. Well, to a certain degree it is correct because nothing comes free in this world, and each person is trying to get most out of their presence in the surroundings. So if you do not have anything to offer, why waste time on you? Why not try to make that extra impression on that other person whom you met in the last conference, so that it works in your advantage?

So getting into such groups is possible only if you have something to show. Then they listen to you, talk with you. I many times see blank faces roaming around trying to find that somebody to talk to. This is also common among nationalities. For example Greeks have a huge presence in database research field. They form a strong society, and always tend to stay together. Visit any top schools database group. You will find at least 1 professor from Greece there.

So how to break this jinx and make your presence felt in these groups? Is this the real purpose of the conferences? Another thing that I have noticed also is, the travel awards go to students who already are rich enough to attend these conferences due to their prestigious affiliations. One hardly sees the presence of students from developing countries. Well, of course you need to have something to show at the conference else why would somebody fund your travel? And its not only about travel expenses but also the expenses on accommodation, registration cost etc. So a conference travel is a costly affair that only rich groups can afford. And that is exactly what gets seen at most of the conferences.

However, I attended one summer school in Germany where the organizers made a conscious effort to mix people at lunch table by randomizing the name plates on each lunch table. They made conscious announcements, like "Students from XXX group, do not stay together, break up and mix with others". That was a great way to show the concern for solving the problem I mention here. However, very few go that extra length to take these kind of measures. 

So the inequality stays even in the realm of research world, where only the strong get to have their say. Who is to blame for this? Governments for not doing enough to support research? There is no concrete answer, again because nothing comes for free.

So as long as the inequality stays, the social hierarchy stays, and so stays the groupism behavior. Many a social philosophers and economists have tried solving these puzzles for a long duration and established different theories, but there is no silver bullet solution.

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